Publish Date: July 2010
Top-of-the-list novelist, Jayne Morrow, has travelled halfway around the world to escape the attentions of a crazed fan. She’s built herself a safe, secluded hideaway in Banjo’s Ridge and is slowly building a new life in Australia.
But the attention of town Ranger, Todd Blackwood, forces her recovery into high gear as he draws her out of her self-imposed isolation and back out into the real world.
Todd’s tried the ‘if you love something set it free’ thing before and got badly burned when his ex-wife didn’t return, how will he feel about trusting Jayne to face her demons in New York without him? And will he be waiting for her when she gets back?
Copyright © 2010 by Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Seven Day Love Story
‘Easy now, big fella…’
It can’t have been simple, keeping his voice level when four sets of fangs were flashing and glinting at head height, but the uniformed man standing at the bottom of Jayne Morrow’s front steps did manage to keep a waver from his voice.
She stared at him, anticipating the numbness that took over right about now–when strangers were around. She’d become used to its intrusion, even welcomed it; numbness was far better than the knee-crumbling anxiety she would have felt two years ago, back in New York.
The dogs twitched and trembled at her feet. Not one of them was a natural leader; if they were, they’d still be roaming the wilds of the Queensland hinterlands scavenging out a wild existence. But all four of them rewarded her for taking them in by stepping up now in response to the presence of the stranger. His eyes stayed glued on the largest of the dogs, Oliver. Jayne whispered her quell command and waited for four canine bottoms to lower to the floor. It took an age but they eventually complied, sliding their lips back down over their teeth. One by one they relaxed, Oliver last.
‘Thank you.’ Down below her, the stranger’s body sagged slightly and he stepped forward onto the first tread of the house steps. Oliver leapt straight back to guard position, issuing a guttural rumbling.
‘Ollie, no,’ she hissed at the brave dog.
The man slid his hands into plain view left and right of his tense body. ‘How about we just talk from here?’
Good idea. ‘Who are you?’ Steady, thank goodness.
‘Todd Blackwood. I was hoping the Shire would have rung ahead to tell you I was coming.’ His Australian voice was rougher than the rocky path leading to Jayne’s doorway.
‘Ah. Then I’ve surprised you.’ His eyes dropped to the hand wrapped around the largest dog’s collar like a lifeline. ‘And frightened you. I’m sorry.’
She tossed her head back and loosened her fingers slightly to let blood leach back into the whitened knuckles. ‘I’m not frightened–‘Such a liar! ‘–just curious. I don’t get many visitors.’
He glanced again at the mass of warm bodies at her feet. ‘No doubt.’
‘They’re just doing their job.’
A gentle smile transformed his face. ‘Me too. I’m here to discuss them with you. I’m the Shire Ranger.’
A ranger was as good as the police out in these parts. His face looked entirely non-threatening, his body as casual as a man being stared down by four wired dogs could be. Even so, something in her itched to run inside and lock the door. She forced herself to resist the impulse.
‘Perhaps if…’ He glanced up at the dogs again and lowered his considerable height to a squat. The dogs’ demeanour changed immediately and three out of four bottoms started to wiggle. Jazmine, Fergus and Dougal had no problems moving instantly from quivering tension to comfortable acceptance. Not Oliver. He was still rigid with suspicion.
The show of trust from the stranger brought Jayne a hint of confidence. If he was here for no good he wouldn’t be putting himself at risk. She wrapped her hand more firmly around Ollie’s collar and then spoke softly to the others.
It only took one word and the three smaller dogs broke rank and leapt down the steps in an explosion of investigatory licking. The Ranger kept his chin high, away from the errant tongues and let them rifle their noses into his jacket and at his trouser legs. It was like the canine version of a full body frisk.
‘Okay,’ he chuckled, patting them individually on the shoulder, pushing back to his feet and taking all the fun a good five feet away from them. ‘Now they’re more like a group of kids on too much sugar.’
Jayne fought the smile. The image was very apt. Except for the little black thunder-cloud at her feet that hadn’t had a whole lot of joy in his life. She gave Oliver’s silky ears a rub. He whined his gratitude. One sharp whistle from her and all loose dogs returned to heel and she was able to wrestle them inside. Still within reach if she needed them but not tripping under foot. It gave the man at the base of her stairs some breathing space.
He looked like a ranger but he was put together like a lumber-jack. Out here maybe there wasn’t much difference? ‘You said you were on official business?’
He frowned at the way she still hovered, glued to her veranda. ‘It’s about the dogs…’
Her grip on Ollie’s collar doubled. ‘What about them?’
‘You have four. Shire regulations only allow three per property.’
Her every instinct was to run. To protect. But she’d learned to fight that. She took a deep breath. ‘I have registered them all. I’m not trying to hide them.’
‘It was the registration that alerted us to the…anomaly.’ He frowned up at her. ‘Could we perhaps… Could I come up?’
She’d come a long way, but the thought of having him in her house overwhelmed her, despite the uniform. ‘I’ll meet you round the back.’
He frowned but nodded. Jayne pushed the eager dogs back from the front door and closed it securely behind her, then hurried through the house to the back. Fergus, Dougal and Jazmine perked up again as soon as they realised her intention. Ollie found his favourite chair and curled up on it looking miserable.
Three would suffice.
They burst from the back door like shot from a rifle and bounded over to where the stranger stood examining a pile of materials and an old, rickety aviary. He ignored them in exactly the way someone who knew dogs would, and that gave them the confidence to busy themselves scavenging around his feet. He became immediately uninteresting.
Jayne cleared her throat. ‘Is there some kind of paperwork I can fill out to get the fourth dog approved?’
Todd shook his head. ‘State limits. Why do you have so many?’
Jayne called Jaz close to her and petted her head. ‘They’re all abandoned. They have no-one else. And they’re…security for me. I live here alone.’
Nice one, genius! Why not tell him where you keep the spare key while you’re at it. She monitored the dogs closely. She trusted them to let her know if his mood changed. If at any stage this became anything more than bureaucracy.
New habits died hard.
He nodded and a thick, dark lock fell down over his reassuringly square brow. Stupid that a forehead should make her feel more comfortable, but it did. Maybe because the smooth, tanned flesh accented the deepest blue eyes she’d seen outside of a magazine advertisement. Somewhere deep inside she was sure anyone up to no good would be less…remarkable.
The eyes in question watched the hovering dogs. ‘They’re good protection. I can see that,’ he said.
‘And they’re a pack now. Splitting them up is not an option.’
‘You may not have a choice, Ms Morrow.’
A double-shot of alarm surged through her. Of course he knew her name, he was from the Shire, and she’d included her details on the registrations. But the thought that he might be leaving here today with one of her four-legged kids chained up in his vehicle… Her chest rose and fell with tight, sudden pain.
‘Please don’t take them.’ It galled her to beg but the alternative was unthinkable.
The ranger stood and stepped towards her. She stumbled backwards. He stopped and put out his hands, carefully. ‘I can see that you have them well trained. That’s a positive in your favour. And you have been very honest in declaring them.’ That broad brow crinkled as his dark eyebrows lowered in concentration. He slid his glance to the materials lying piled a few feet away. ‘What’s all this for?’
Panic bubbled up further and disguised itself as frustration. ‘Is that in breach of something, too?’
He smiled, utterly bemused. ‘No. I’m just thinking…’ He wandered over to the old aviary in the shade of an ancient gum tree. A giant corrella blinked at him from the high perch and a possum peered suspiciously out of a nest-box in the corner. On the ground, a bandicoot picked off the corrella’s cast-off food scraps. ‘You have quite a little zoo going here.’
Jayne stared at him, wondering what to say. ‘More of a half-way house. The plan is for most of these guys to go back to the bush when they’re rehabilitated.’
He turned back to her. ‘You have a carer’s license?’
Her heart sank. ‘I wasn’t aware I needed one.’
That smile dissolved rapidly into a thin line. He stared at her hard, mind ticking over visibly in his expressive blue eyes. ‘If you’re dabbling in wildlife rehab, yes, you’ll definitely need one. But it will also solve your dog dilemma. A license provides for more than three dogs, provided one of them is being rehabbed.’
The first genuine glimpse of hope burst into life deep inside her. ‘Oh! But they all are. How do I apply?’
‘You just fill out a form at the Shire office and pay the license fee.’
The flicker extinguished in a gush of sudden dread. ‘Is it not available online?’
His deep chuckle worked its way under her skin. ‘Welcome to Banjo’s Ridge. Hardcopy and carbon-copy triplicate, the old fashioned way.’
She didn’t have a hope of stopping the fingers of her right hand compulsively touching her thumb. They did it of their own accord, over and over in order, bringing their odd, cell-deep comfort. The best she could do was tuck her whole hand out of view.
Those extraordinary eyes followed the brief move.
‘Tell you what,’ he said, his tone changing instantly to the overly loud one she’d used at her book signings when particularly frail fans queued up for her signature. ‘I’ll bring the form back out to you on my rounds tomorrow. We’ll get you all signed up.’
It meant him coming back, but it saved her the agony of a trip into town. Even if town consisted of only 132 people. And only a third of them around at any one time. Thoughts of gift-horses flitted through her mind.
‘That would be kind. Thank you.’ She took a breath. ‘What time?’
She turned to walk back around the house. He took the not-so-subtle hint and followed her. ‘I couldn’t say. I’m rostered first thing so it will be in the morning sometime–whenever I’m out this way. That’s the best I can do.’
Oh lovely. A surprise visit. Nothing she liked more. Her finger-counting started over. ‘Yes, that will be good. Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ She turned from him stiffly and retreated to the house, calling the yipping dogs with her.
Todd lifted his eyebrows as he watched her go. Not the friendliest of locals. But then she wasn’t local, she’d only been in the Queensland hinterland a short time, judging by that accent. A pretty, young American woman living alone had a way of standing out, but for all the townsfolk had to say about her, no-one seemed to know much about her other than her cracking impersonation of Greta Garbo. I want to be alone.
Yep. He got that loud and clear.
‘So…guess I’ll be going!’ he called, pointlessly, at the cottage door that had closed quietly in his face, then shook his head and turned to walk around to the front of the house.
Possibly the touchiest woman he’d ever met, certainly the most unwelcoming. It would never fly on this mountain. Neighbours needed each other. If she was being that cool to him–practically the law out here–he could bet there wasn’t a single family this side of the ridge that would drop in to see if she needed anything in an emergency. Gorgeous or not.
And she most definitely was.
That ghost of an almost-smile stuck in his mind. Hair like spun gold. And the most unusual eyes with a bit of every colour in them. Fine pointed chin, smooth, pale skin. Soft, small lips. Everything about her seemed…refined. There was no-one like her on this ridge.
Todd climbed into his truck and buckled up. He saw the tiniest shimmy in curtains that told him she was still watching. Waiting for him to go.
Nope, absolutely no-one like her.
Never mind; he had bigger fish to fry than a recalcitrant license-breacher. Old Tom Hardy had reported seeing that black panther in his far paddock again–claimed to have a footprint this time.The fact he’d swung by Miss Prickly’s refuge first said a lot about his belief in a mythical wildcat down on the Hardy farm. Still, it kept him busy. And in a town where there was barely enough cause to have even a part-time ranger, busy was a rarity. When he’d settled in Banjo’s Ridge he?d been looking for a fresh start. A slow-motion kind of existence. Anything as long as it was different to his life in the city.
Mythical black panthers and enigmatic mystery women certainly qualified.